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Hartnett: Patrick could make history (Feb. 21)

Brian Hartnett | Thursday, February 21, 2013

 

The Super Bowl might be the most viewed sporting event of this month (and this year, for that matter), but it is by no means the most-widely attended. That honor goes to the Daytona 500, the so-called “Super Bowl of NASCAR,” which, on average, draws approximately 250,000 spectators each year.

This year’s edition of “The Great American Race” is scheduled for this Sunday, and it’s safe to say hordes of motor homes will once again descend upon Daytona Beach, Fla., for the event. 

But this year’s race will look a little different to NASCAR diehards. They will witness history even before the speeding pack of 43 cars has the chance to complete one lap around the famed two-and-a-half mile oval.

For the first time, when the green flag drops at Daytona, a woman will be leading the race. This woman, of course, is Danica Patrick, perhaps the sport’s best-known driver despite the fact that she is a Sprint Cup rookie.

Patrick made history Saturday when she became the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole (or any Sprint Cup race pole) with a lap of 196.434 miles per hour. Although winning the pole may be seen as the equivalent of having a good practice, it was a truly unique accomplishment that could really mark the beginning of a positive shift for the sport.

It’s no secret that auto racing is one of the more divisive sports or activities or whatever you prefer to call it. While NASCAR has a devoted legion of fans, many others see it as the butt of jokes, or a boring waste of time.

They’re not entirely wrong in that regard. 500-mile races are not a made-for-TV event, save the final 10 or 20 miles. Like many other sports, NASCAR has become so corporate that most races feel like advertisements for home improvement or construction companies. It also doesn’t help that, until recently, Jimmie Johnson single-handedly dominated the sport, winning five consecutive Cup series championships between 2006 and 2010. Heck, NASCAR’s most marketable individual is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has won a grand total of one race over the last four years.

These recent struggles highlight exactly why Patrick’s accomplishment is so important. She has a great opportunity to infuse life into NASCAR and attract a whole new fan base to racetracks across the country.

Admittedly, Patrick isn’t the most likeable driver, projecting little of the down-home charm associated with several racing legends. She has feuded with several drivers during her time in the IndyCar and Nationwide Series. Some have criticized the inordinate amount of media attention showered on her, despite the fact that she has only won one race in her professional career.

Despite all this, she is incredibly attractive to advertisers and the casual fan because of, well, her good looks. Patrick has appeared in commercials for ESPN, Honda and most notably, GoDaddy.com. She has been able to brand herself as a true rarity, an attractive young female in one of the most testosterone-driven sports.

And her unique brand is what NASCAR needs now. She can attract the casual male observer. She can also attract female fans, whether it is young girls looking to follow her into racing or older women rooting for her to break down the “old boys'” culture prevalent in the sport.

Ultimately, however, Patrick must produce results on the Sprint Cup circuit or risk being viewed as a permanent sideshow. She will always garner increased interest, but there’s only so much fans can hear about her relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or her finish at the back of the pack or her quibbles with other drivers before they tune her out. 

Thus, Patrick will have to continue her strong start in her new racing home. While it’s unlikely she’ll ever win a Cup series championship, the evidence that she can succeed is there, as she has finished in the top 10 of both the IndyCar and Nationwide series.

It is encouraging to see Patrick already accomplishing much in her first full season on the top circuit. Similarly, it will be nice to see her make history Sunday when the green flag waves.

But the question that will ultimately determine her success is whether she can make history when the checkered flag waves.

 

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu 

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.